"A-15.  UPPER LANDING OF STAIRCASE (FROM BELOW).  Phyllis Dietrichson stands looking down.  She is in her early thirties.  She holds a large bath-towel around her very appetizing torso, down to about two inches above her knees.  She wears no stockings, no nothing.  On her feet a pair of high-heeled bedroom slippers with pom-poms.  On her left ankle a gold anklet."

“A-15. UPPER LANDING OF STAIRCASE (FROM BELOW). Phyllis Dietrichson stands looking down. She is in her early thirties. She holds a large bath-towel around her very appetizing torso, down to about two inches above her knees. She wears no stockings, no nothing. On her feet a pair of high-heeled bedroom slippers with pom-poms. On her left ankle a gold anklet.”

My Top 5:

  1. Double Indemnity
  2. Gaslight
  3. Arsenic and Old Lace
  4. Laura
  5. Ministry of Fear

Note:  That’s it.  My whole list for the year.  But it’s also a year where only 8 films rank above *** and the other three are original.  Not a good year for film.

Oscar Nominees (Best Screenplay):

  • Double Indemnity
  • Gaslight
  • Laura
  • Meet Me in St. Louis

note:  In an annoyance, the winner is Going My Way, the one film that is original (it also won Best Original Story).

double-indemnity-quad-posterDouble Indemnity

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  But it is worth noting not only how good this film is (easily the best film of the year and one of the best suspense films ever made), but how important it is.  It is one of the building blocks of what would eventually come to be called film noir, but it is also the first real sign that Billy Wilder was a force to be reckoned with.  Prior to this, Wilder had been in Hollywood for a decade and had earned three Oscar nominations for writing.  For the next two decades he would be a consistent mainstay in both the Best Director and Best Screenplay categories and he would consistently deserve his nominations (and more).

James M. Cain - Double indemnity 2The Source:

Double Indemnity by James Cain  (1943)

In my original review, I wrote the following about the novel: “James M. Cain was not a great writer, he was not a writer nearly on the par with Hammett or Chandler, but he could come up with a story and he could create dialogue.  He was a pulp master and pulp works often turn into great films.  They have the story, they have the dialogue, they almost seem to already have that haze ready at the top of the stairs or the smoke off the cigarette tip in the insurance office.”

I still hold to that.  Double Indemnity isn’t that great of a book.  It has some solid dialogue and has a good story that works well for the screen.  But it doesn’t pulse in the way that Hammet dialogue does and it doesn’t have an intricate plot like a Chandler mystery.  Part of that is because Cain just wasn’t on their level.  Part of it, of course, is that those two wrote mysteries and Double Indemnity isn’t a mystery – we never once have to wonder about what is going to happen and who will do it.  This is a crime novel (or a thriller) – we follow it every step of the way.  It’s the way that Cain draws us to follow it that works so well: “When I met Phyllis I met my plant.  If that seems funny to you, that I would kill a man just to pick up a stack of chips, it might not seem so funny if you were back of that wheel, instead of out front.”

But the book does one have one hell of a problem.  The ending is, quite frankly, stupid.  We get nothing of the brilliance of the film (more on that below).  Instead, Walter confesses when he thinks that they’re going to hang the murder he committed on the daughter of the man he killed.  Then he starts blabbing.  And everything gets covered up because of the insurance company that he works for, and in the end he’s on a boat with Phyllis, and it looks like they’ll commit suicide together.  Or she’ll trick him into killing himself and she’ll get away again.  There’s a nice line at the end: “I didn’t hear the stateroom door open, but she’s beside me now while I’m waiting.  I can feel her.”  That would be a fantastic finish for a horror novel, but for this novel, well, it doesn’t really work all that well.

The Adaptation:

“Buddy telephoned me to say that Joe was to do Double Indemnity with Billy. I thought I’d be depressed by the news but as the day wore in I felt vastly relieved by it. Gravely doubt that I can ever bring myself to work with Billy again.” p 213 March 18, 1943. “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age.

That is what Brackett had to say in his diary, but of course, it was not what came to pass.  It was true that Brackett would not work on Double Indemnity (and didn’t have a very good opinion of either the original source or the film that came out of it), but they would work together again, most notably on Sunset Blvd., before they would finally part ways for good.  But this is notable because this is the first film that Wilder would direct without Brackett co-writing the script with him.

As it turned out, that was fine.  Brackett had a good ear for dialogue (he is the one, after all, who came up with the line “It’s the pictures that got small”, thus the title of the published version of his diaries), but this needed a more pulpish mind, and so Raymond Chandler was brought in and the result was pure pulp poetry.  Chandler and Wilder would keep the basic plot of the book and a lot of the details, but ones that didn’t quite fit the film they would jettison in an instant.

“A woman was standing there.  I had never seen her before.  She was maybe thirty-one or -two, with a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair.  She was small, and had on a suit of blue house pajamas.  She had a washed-out look.”  That’s our introduction to Phyllis in the novel.  Now look at the picture at the top of this post.  That’s how we get introduced to her in the novel.  There’s no anklet in the book, but oh is there ever one in the film.  The film continues like this, punching up dialogue, adding to scenes, always keeping close to the idea, but always adding something more (like when they get in the car after the crime and the car won’t start).

But the most important change comes at the end.  Phyllis is dead, having shot Walter and having been shot by him in turn.  Walter sits at his desk, bleeding, dying, giving us this story.  He suddenly realizes that there is someone else in the room, and he sees Keyes, the investigator that he’s been holding at bay perhaps by holding him too close.  And then, instead of a ridiculous maybe double suicide, maybe nothing, we get that last classic exchange to finish off this magnificent film:

Neff:  I’m fine.  Only somebody moved the elevator a couple of miles away.
Keyes:  They’re on the way.
Neff:  You know why you didn’t figure this one, Keyes?  Let me tell you.  The guy you were looking for was too close.  He was right across the desk from you.
Keyes:  Closer than that, Walter.
Neff:  I love you too.

All quotes from the published version of the screenplay.

The Credits:

Directed by Billy Wilder.  Screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler.  From the Novel by James M. Cain.


The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  I really feel I should point how remarkable this film is given the director.  Think of the best work of George Cukor and you’ll see films like Dinner at Eight, The Philadelphia Story, A Star is Born and My Fair Lady.  He’s great with actors (Jimmy Stewart, Ingrid Bergman, Ronald Colman, Judi Holliday and Rex Harrison all won Oscars in his films and he directed much of the Oscar winning performances of Vivien Leigh and Hattie McDaniel) but a suspense film is not exactly what you think of with this master of comedy and musicals.  And yet, here it is, a suspense film on a par with many of the best Hitchcock films, one that won one acting Oscar and should have won three.

gaslightThe Source:

Gas Light: A Victorian thriller in three acts by Patrick Hamilton  (1938)

Gas Light is a smart little play, a bit of a mystery that starts off slow (we see a husband constantly berating his wife for the things she has been doing and things have been going missing while also flirting with the house help directly in front of her) and then starts to move once Rough, the policeman, shows up and lets us in on what is going on.  It seems there was once a murder in the house, some 20 years ago, and the policeman thinks the husband is a man who worked in the house back then, might have done the murder trying to find priceless jewels, and now has come back to buy the house and actually find the jewels.  It is a nice little mystery, with a bit of a flaw at its center (which the film fixes, as I will mention down below), but really it’s a showcase for the lead female performance, a woman who has started to believe that she is really going crazy.  The role gets a really great scene at the end where confronts her husband.

The Adaptation:

“Cukor attributes the high quality of the screenplay of his American movie to the writing abilities of John Van Druten and of Walter Reisch.  Reisch’s forte was plot construction, while Van Druten’s chief skill was composing dialogue.  Together they worked over an earlier draft of the screenplay and came up with a superbly crafted shooting script.  In opening up the play for the screen, the writers wisely decided to dramatize certain crucial events which lead up the point at which the action of the play gets under way.  Hence the movie begins at the time of the murder of Alice Alquist, a renowned soprano, by Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), who hopes to steal the previous jewels which she has hidden somewhere in her house . . . In subtly tipping off the filmgoer fairly early on to what Anton is up to, Cukor has followed Hitchcock’s principle of opting for prolonged suspense over momentary surprise in a thriller of this kind . . . by giving this vital information away to the viewer long before the heroine catches on, Cukor is able to build tension steadily in the filmgoer, who ruefully wonders throughout the balance of the movie if Paula will discover her husband’s sordid scheme against her before it is too late.”  (George Cukor by Gene D. Phillips, p 48-49)

What Phillips doesn’t really address in that paragraph is that the original opening up, of showing the murder of Alice, happened as well in the first film version that had been made in the U.K. in 1940.  It’s possible that the original U.K. film was mostly unavailable by the time Phillips wrote his book.

The more important thing that this film does is establish a relationship between Ingrid Bergman’s character and the original murdered woman.  Fans of this film would probably be surprised to learn that in the original play and the first film version, she is no relation to the murdered woman.  But here, she is the niece.  That closes two implausibilities in the film.  The first is the question of why this marriage happened in the first place – in this film we see her wooed by her future husband when she is young and insecure and it’s easy to discern why; he needs her in order to gain control of the house so he can find the jewels and finish the job.  But that also deals with the second implausibility; in the play, he is simply a former employee in the house who has managed to buy it twenty years later.  But what would have prevented the jewels from being found in the first place?  In this film, with the young niece inheriting the house, it is locked up until she decides to take possession, thus ensuring that no one will have found the jewels in the first place.  He needs to marry her because that’s the only way of getting into the house, but he also knows that no one will get into the house unless she is pushed to moved back in.

The film also pushes back much of the action of the play.  By the time the play starts, she has already been losing things for a while and their relationship has already started to deteriorate.  While we get a sense of palpable menace from Boyer long before things go really bad, we also see the good parts and watch the descent into madness.  This really adds to Bergman’s performance and is probably what helped her to win (her very deserved) Oscar.  But it also gives a better measure for Boyer’s performance (which wins the Nighthawk, even if it didn’t win the Oscar).  We also meet the policeman much earlier in the film than in the play, when he simply shows up and lets us know that the husband is the villain; in the film this is all handled much better and grows more naturally.  Nearly everything that the screenwriters do with this script is an improvement upon the original play.  It’s a good play, but it’s a great film.

The Credits:

Directed by George Cukor.  Screen Play by John Van Druten, Walter Reisch and John L. Balderston.  Based Upon the Play by Patrick Hamilton.

arsenic-and-old-lace-posterArsenic and Old Lace

The Film:

I have already reviewed this film once.  I do rank it is a **** film, though it’s not nearly on the same level as Double Indemnity and Gaslight.  Still, it is really great fun and will keep you laughing pretty much all the way through it.

arsenicThe Source:

Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring  (1939)

Is the brilliance of Arsenic and Old Lace in the play or what can be done with it?  I think there’s a bit of both.  And it is a brilliantly funny play.  First of all, it has a hilarious concept – the house full of loons all trying to coop with each other at the same time.  You’ve got the dotterring old aunts offing any old man who comes through the door.  There is the lunatic brother who thinks he’s Teddy Roosevelt (that alone is what really makes me think the play itself is brilliant – almost every interaction with him is really pretty damn funny).  There is the psychotic other brother returning him with a mad doctor and a corpse in tow, and he eventually gets mad when he realizes his aunts have outdone him in the murder game (“You got twelve and they got twelve.  The old ladies are just as good as you are.”).  In the middle of all of this is one man just trying to hold his sanity together when he finds bodies in the window seat (different bodies depending on when he happens to look) and is hoping to get married and have a nice happy life.

Some of the lines of the play are hilarious in and of themselves (“Insanity runs in my family.  It practically gallops.”), some are funny because of the situation (“What’s he doing down in the cellar?”).  But much of the humor must come from the reactions – specifically the reactions of poor Mortimer Brewster as he realizes what a mess he has landed in.  You have to make certain to get the right actor for the part so they can really get the reactions right (thus Cary Grant being so perfect).

The play works towards a solid ending – somehow this provides a bit of a happy ending for almost everyone involved, even Dr. Einstein who certainly doesn’t deserve one (though, as played in the film by Peter Lorre, I’m okay with him having one) and a kicker of a line to cap it off (“I’m a bastard!”).

The Adaptation:

Well, the first change was going to be a doozy, reminiscent of the change to His Girl Friday: you had to change that big line at the climax because “bastard” was no more allowed on screen by the Code than “son-of-a-bitch” was.  Surprisingly enough, “I’m the son of a sea cook!” seemed to work just as well – not as funny as the stage line, but certainly effective.

Other than that, it was a question of how close to stick to the play and whether or not they really wanted to open things up.  For the most part, Capra did stick with the play, and once things get going you can sit there and read the play and watch the film and you’ll do just fine.  There are some changes, to be certain (they are actually married in the film while just contemplating it in the play), but many of the best lines arrive intact – some of them may get moved between characters, but the basic concept stays the same (for instance, O’Hara isn’t the cop at the beginning in the play, just at the end).

Capra chooses for the most part not to open things up – to keep things pretty much in the living room of the Brewster family house just like in the play, with two exceptions.  The first is to have a few scenes to open the film, before the action of the play begins and that makes use of a few other sets.  But the main opening up is by actually creating a cemetery between the two houses, which is only talked about in the play, but provides a very nice set piece in the film (with some of the action moved out into it).  It provides a nice macabre touch to a film that is already making us laugh about death much more than we should be.  And if they couldn’t get Karloff for the film (they couldn’t – they were already borrowing Jean Adair and Josephine Hull from the stage and the stage producers wouldn’t let them take Karloff as he was their money ticket), then to get some good makeup to make Raymond Massey look like Karloff is the next best thing.

The Credits:

Directed by Frank Capra.  Screen Play by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein.  From the Stage Play by Joseph Kesselring.  Produced by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse.


The Film:

This film has an interesting place in film history that depends entirely upon who is writing that history.  You could look at this film and its place in film noir history – there are those who would have you believe that this film helps set the standard for film noir.  This argument is somewhat undercut by the fact that Double Indemnity came out the same year (and is generally more highly regarded) and that Laura doesn’t really fit the notion of a femme fatale (see below for more) while Phyllis in Double Indemnity absolutely does fit that notion.  Some write about this film as if it the best that Otto Preminger ever had to give us and for part of the evidence they point out that he was nominated for Best Director.  This argument fails, to me, on a couple of levels.  First, I don’t think it’s the best that Preminger had to offer – I don’t rate this film nearly as highly as I do The Man with the Golden Arm or Anatomy of a Murder.  Second, Preminger would be nominated again for The Cardinal, which is relentlessly mediocre and he wouldn’t be nominated for Anatomy, which was nominated for Best Picture, so the Oscars are hardly the barometer for a film’s greatness.

So where does that leave us with this film?  This film is very good – it has some of the best direction of Preminger’s career (like at the Oscars, he earns a Director nomination at the Nighthawks, but also like the Oscars, the film does not earn a nomination – in fact, the only reason Preminger earns a nomination is because Preston Sturges earns two and I have a rule about having five different directors).  It is well written and that writing is supplemented by the absolutely sublime performance from Clifton Webb, the performance that really makes the film.  But there is also the rub, and part of the reason that this film sets securely on my list as a ***.5 film and can not rise up to the level of greatness.  Not because of Webb, but because of everything else.

See, there’s only so much you can do with Clifton Webb in the film (he’s great, both in his performance and in the voiceover, but his personality also adds nice touches – it’s so believable that he would have a detective in to the room while he’s in the bath, something that wouldn’t have worked with most other actors and is not in the original novel).  You still have to get through the rest of the film and while Judith Anderson is okay and Vincent Price is well cast, Gene Tierney is not really up to par and Dana Andrews was never that much of an actor.  So, that leaves us with a bit of a void in the center of the film, with the detective that is supposed to fall in love with his victim, and the with the actual victim, who doesn’t seem to really be worth all the fuss.

It’s really a shame that there’s this gap, because we have really good cinematography (it won the Oscar), phenomenal music (it should have won the Oscar) and some of the best direction of Preminger’s very uneven career.  But in the end, I still only rate it at ***.5 and I just don’t see that level of film being considered a classic.

lauraThe Source:

Laura by Vera Caspary (1943) – published as a serial in 1942

Laura is another book in Femme Fatales: Women Write Pulp series currently printed by the Feminist Press.  Like Now Voyager, which I reviewed in 1942, also for this series, this book doesn’t really belong in the series.  Yes, this one is more of a pulp novel, and of course it is written by a female.  But again, Laura isn’t really a femme fatale (at least she is more of one than Charlotte, the main character in Now Voyager) – men are drawn to her, but she is not drawing them towards death.

Laura is a fairly well-written novel, a mystery that stands out from a lot of other mysteries because of its style and because of its narrative.  By style, I mean the story itself – there is a detective, but he is a policeman and he is nothing like the kind of detectives we’re used to, nothing like Poirot or Spade or Marlowe or Holmes.  He’s not even that great of a detective (though we hear of his more famous exploits) – he’s just a policeman called in to look into a homicide who discovers a rather interesting mystery, not because of his detective work, but because the dead woman he’s looking into walks through the door right in front of him.  Kudos go to Caspary for writing a different kind of mystery, one that seems as interested in its characters as its plot (in fact, more interested in its characters than in its plot).  She doesn’t quite know where to go with it and so it winds down a bit as it continues, but it is a least an interesting idea.

By narrative, I mean her narrative style.  The novel is written from the viewpoint of three different characters – Waldo Lydecker, the gossip columnist and man about town who introduces Laura to high society and becomes obsessed with her, Mark McPherson, the detective who is called in to solve the murder and ends up solving a different murder once the murdered girl walks in through the door, and Laura herself, the woman that men fall for and who is thought to be murdered and just barely escapes being murdered again.

The problem, of course, is the same problem that will present itself in the film, which is that Waldo is by far the most interesting character and his narrative is the most worth reading, and yet, because of plot necessities, we will lose his voice early on.  The novel is a good read, but there’s a reason that the book has fallen by the wayside and is remembered more for the film that it became – because the book takes the plot and really makes something more out of it.

The Adaptation:

“I first worked on the script with a writer, Jay Dratley, but the dialogue wasn’t right.  Foy gave me permission to hire the writing team of the poet Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt.  Hoffenstein practically created the character of Waldo Lydecker for Clifton Webb.”  (Preminger: An Autobiography by Otto Preminger.  p 72)

“When we finished the Laura script we had almost an entirely new plot.  From the original book we retained only the gimmick of Laura first appearing to be the victim of a murder and afterward, when she returns, becoming the chief suspect.”  (Preminger, p 72)

Preminger also explains how Fox head Richard D. Zanuck didn’t like the ending, wanted a third part, with Laura narrating (to go along with Lydecker’s narration and the MacPherson’s narration); he ordered it written and filmed and then screened it for Walter Winchell who talked him out of using it and going back to Preminger’s original ending.

“After, at Preminger’s invitation, Vera Caspary had read the first-draft script, the novelist asked Preminger, ‘Why don’t you give her the character she has in the book?’  He replied, ‘In the book, Laura has no character . . . Laura has no sex.’  Their discussion concluded with Caspary’s saying, ‘Perhaps you don’t know anything about love, Mr. Preminger.'”  (The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger by Chris Fujiwara, p 37)

There’s a lot of talk about this moment in every book on Preminger, and Caspary herself wrote about this scene in an article on the film she wrote in 1971.  Preminger was determined to bring sex to the film, and there’s certainly the hint of that on the edges.  But that’s undermined a bit by Tierney’s performance that seems to strip away the sex that Preminger wanted to bring to it.

“Zanuck recommended downplaying the love angle – a suggestion that Preminger would resist – and criticized Laura’s voice-over narration, which he thought pointless.  That this narration would survive three revisions of the screenplay means that Preminger argued in favor of it and persuaded Zanuck to let him try it.  Only with the April 18, 1944, final shooting script would Laura’s narration be jettisoned.  On the other hand, Mark’s narration was still envisioned all through production and was recorded by Dana Andrews, only to be discarded in postproduction.”  (Fujiwara, p 37)

In the end, this was the right choice.  Waldo’s narration works on two levels – because the character is the perfect one to be narrating, and because Webb brings such a carefully crafted persona to the narration.  As with every decision about the film involving Webb, this was the right one.

The other major change from the book involves the murder weapon itself and how it is kept secret.  Caspary had the weapon hidden in a walking cane.  That has always seemed preposterous to me and I think Preminger was right to ditch this motife, no matter how hard Caspary tries to argue for it, both at the time, and in her retrospective article.  I really think Preminger, with the casting put aside, really made the best film from this novel that could be made.

The Credits:

Produced and Directed by Otto Preminger.  “Laura” by Vera Caspary.  Screen Play by Jay Dratler and Samuel Hoffenstein and Betty Reinhardt.

Chris Fujiawara’s book notes that “Philip Lewis and George Bricker worked on adapting the novel before Jay Dratler was assigned to the project.”

ministry_of_fearMinistry of Fear

The Film:

Fritz Lang was not a fan of this film.  But sometimes a director is not the best person to be asked to look at their own work.  Lang fought with his screenwriter over the script, which wasn’t going to work out for Lang since his screenwriter, Seton I. Miller, was also the producer, and he was going to get his way.

This is a surprisingly effective film given that the lead is Ray Milland, given that a typical Hollywood happy ending was tacked on to the end (straying from the book and definitely straying from Lang’s desire).  It’s effective because of what the original novel had brought to the film in the first place – a taut little thriller about a man who has just been released from an asylum (he’s been locked up after killing his wife, but it was really a mercy killing), manages to buy a cake at a charity event and that leads to him being chased by spies and falling in love.

It’s hard to get too detailed about what happens without completely giving it away.  There is a fortune teller, there is a mystery man who then ends up dead, there is a stretch where Milland is back under lock and key and assumed to be crazy.  Throughout it all there is that sense of palpable suspense that Lang is so good at bringing to his films.  If Lang’s American films would never match up to his German films, they at least provide a pseudo-Hitchcockian aura to them that makes them worth seeking out.  In a good year this film would probably sit way down on this list.  But in 1944, one of the weakest years in film history, it’s enough to make it the sixth best film and the fifth best adapted screenplay.

ministryThe Source:

The Ministry of Fear by Graham Greene  (1943)

Graham Greene for a long time would break down his novels into two categories: entertainments and novels.  The entertainments were generally thrillers while the novels were more serious, both in content, and often in their literary aspirations.  You would think that the entertainments would be almost tailor made to be turned into films, especially since Greene was both a film critic and a screenwriter.  Yet, surprisingly, many of the best works made from Grahame’s works have been from the serious novels (The Fugitive, The Heart of the Matter, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American, Brighton Rock).  But there were certainly some quite good films made from his entertainments.  The Ministry of Fear is not only one of the better films, but also one of the better entertainments.

What makes the book work so well is part of what also makes the film work so well – the underlying fear at the heart of Arthur Rowe.  This is a man who has already been in prison, who lives in every moment with the guilt he feels over killing his wife.  Rowe’s feelings of guilt are more ambiguous in the novel because he knows that while he was relieving his wife of her long pain, his first priority was relieving himself of his own long pain at both watching her go through the pain and trying to support her through it (I was reminded of The Theory of Everything and my comment that life might have been easier for Jane is Stephen had died after a couple of years as was originally thought).  All of this wouldn’t be as meaningful if Rowe weren’t then caught in up in a murder mystery that is even more entwined with a plot about a spy ring working on behalf of Nazi Germany.  All of this takes place during the course of the Blitz and the book was written and published during the heart of the war (the Blitz will also play into the much more serious events of The End of the Affair).

It’s not a perfect book.  All of this gets a big side detour as Rowe loses his memory a bit thanks to a bombing and it can get confusing, but it eventually gets back on track and works very well as a thriller.  It’s nowhere near the level of Greene’s “novels” but, really, not a whole lot of other books work on the level of Greene’s more serious works (as evidenced by the fact that only Faulkner, Roth and Rushdie have as many Top 200 novels as Greene has on my list).

The Adaptation:

“The writer-producer had finessed a breezy adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, treating the story as Hitchcock might have – glossing over the puzzling clues that didn’t quite add up, the alarming leaps in continuity, the superficial characterizations. Everything was sacrificed to the style and momentum of a slick Hollywood thriller.” (Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast by Patrick McGilligan, p 306)

That’s the thing with entertainments.  You have to be willing to overlook certain things.  It’s all about the suspension of disbelief.  This adaptation is better at maintaing that suspension than a lot of films precisely because it does pare down some of the plot in the transition from page to screen.

But, aside from minor details, there are two major things that are changed between the book and the film.  The first is the circumstances in which Milland’s character kills his wife.  In the book he is much more tortured by it because it is made clear that is was as much (if not more) for his relief than for hers; in the book it is as much her choice as it is his.  The other is the ending of the film, in terms of the potential guilt of the love interest, the death of her brother and the actual conclusion itself.  Clearly, Hollywood came calling and it was going to give it a Hollywood ending.  It doesn’t completely mar the film, but it doesn’t really do it any favors either.

The Credits:

Directed by Fritz Lang.  Screen Play by Seton I. Miller.  Based on the Novel by Graham Greene.

The Other Award Nominee:

Meet_Me_In_St_Louis_PosterMeet Me in St. Louis

The Film:

Meet Me in St. Louis is a nice charming film that is good for the whole family.  It looks gorgeous throughout, tells a nice heart-warming tale and has one of the greatest songs ever written for a motion picture (which, of course, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in its infinite wisdom failed to even nominate for an Oscar).  I see it as a solid *** film and not a classic.  Is it because the film, for all its warmth still really isn’t that great, with a fairly cliched story and not a whole lot in the way of acting?  Or is it me being a bit of a cynic refusing to see it for the classic that so many hold it up to be?

Clearly, I’m going with the former.  The film is nice, it’s a good film and one that everyone can sit down and enjoy.  But just like the rather slight book that is the source (see below), the story itself is rather slight.  The things that befall these four girls just seem so, I don’t know, I’ll go with mild for lack of a better word.  They’re certainly nothing like what happens to the March girls; they seemed like a leftover version of what happened to the Bennets.  But, while Garland does a solid job, she’s way short of her best work, and we have nothing like Katharine Hepburn or Joan Fontaine in that all important role (or, for more modern examples, Winona Ryder and Keira Knightley).  And aside from Garland, there is nothing even close to a stand-out in the cast.  In some ways, it even lacks the freshness of a film like Love Finds Andy Hardy, which had Garland at least playing well off her buddy Mickey Rooney.

What really makes this movie stand out is the wonderful production design.  This film looks great, from the cinematography to the sets to the costumes, it is everything you want to see on-screen in a mid-40’s Technicolor film.  And all the hallmarks are there for a great musical (lots of great musicals are light on story and some are even light on acting), but there is one other thing that keeps it from really rising up: the lack of great music.  Yes, there is one absolute stand-out song, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and that scene is absolutely the best of the film, one which brings a bit more of a human measure to a film that is a bit whiney up to that point.  But, sadly, none of the other songs are even in the same galaxy and the film, while charming and a good way to pass the time, doesn’t rise even above the level of *** and certainly falls considerably short of what I would call a “classic”.

meetmeThe Source:

Meet Me in St. Louis by Sally Benson  (1942)

Meet Me in St. Louis is a slight book.  I could mean that to talk about its length (the copy I’m holding does run 290 pages, but that’s with fairly big type and decent margins), but really I’m talking about the content.  It’s the heart-warming tale of childhood reminiscence.  There are twelve chapters to the book, covering the span of one year, one chapter for each month.  It concludes in May of 1904 with the opening of the World’s Fair (“The miracle of the World’s Fair in St. Louis, rising as it did out of the wilderness, stunned everyone.  It seemed impossible that only two years before, Governor Francis of Missouri had driven in the first stake with a silver ax while crowds walking though the briers and coarse grass to witness the ceremony carried heavy sticks to protect themselves from snakes.”).  It’s heart-warming, to be certain, the story of four young girls and a year in their lives as they all seem desperate to transition into adulthood at the same time.

But in the end, there’s not really that much to it.  Which makes it all the more surprising that this book originally appeared as a series of vignettes in The New Yorker, of all places.  I can’t imagine anything like this appearing in The New Yorker today.  These seem much more like something that would have appeared in Saturday Evening Post.

The book is nice enough, but I have to wonder if it would be remembered at all today if it were not for the film.  Would people still care about a woman remembering what it was like to grow up in the aura of a World’s Fair, provided they could even be bothered to know what a World’s Fair was?

Note:  There seems to be some confusion about this book.  Everyone seems to agree that it was originally a series of eight vignettes in The New Yorker and then four more were added for the book.  The vignettes were called “5135 Kensington”.  Now, most sources say that the book was going to be called that, but since the film was already in the works and the title had been changed to Meet Me in St. Louis, Benson decided to publish the book under that title.  That sounded dubious, but I have found nothing to refute it, though the BFI book referred to the book as The Kensington Stories, as if that was the title.

The Adaptation:

Normally in this spot, I would describe the differences between the book and the film, describe what happened and why in changing the written word to what we see on screen.  However, there is a book about this film in the BFI Film Classics series.  It is currently out of print, but you can find very inexpensive used copies here, or, like me, you can just check your local library.  I mention this because there are several pages in the book that are dedicated to the process of the script, how it began as the Benson stories, how it progressed through several early drafts from various writers and how the final shooting copies came about, specifically with the decision to confine almost all of the action of the film to the Smith family house.  I feel it would be inconsiderate to quote several pages of text and inappropriate to paraphrase the work that Gerald Kaufman did at the Arthur Freed collection at USC.

The Credits:

Directed by Vincente Minnelli.  Screen Play by Irving Brecher and Fred F. Finklehoffe.  Based on the Book by Sally Benson.

Other Adaptations  (in descending order of how good the film is):

  • The Seventh Cross  –  A solid early Fred Zinnemann film from the novel by Anna Seghers.  My #9 film in this very weak year.
  • Jane Eyre  –  A film that should be better than it is.  Adapted from the amazing novel, there’s a full review of it here.
  • Passage to Marseille  –  Michael Curtiz action film with Bogie starring, based on a Nordhoff / Hall novel (the two who wrote Mutiny on the Bounty).
  • The Suspect  –  An effective thriller with a brow-beaten Charles Laughton, adapted from This Way Out by James Ronald.  Also starring Ella Raines.
  • Phantom Lady  –  Ella Raines was big in 1944 (she was also in Hail the Conquering Hero) and in this one she’s a secretary trying to solve a murder she hopes her boss didn’t commit.  Like The Suspect, directed by Robert Siodmak.  This is from the novel by Cornell Woolrich.
  • Mrs. Parkington  –  The fourth Greer Garson / Walter Pidgeon collaboration and like the first three, Garson would earn an Oscar nomination.  Not their worst work, it earns a Nighthawk nomination for Supporting Actress and Garson comes in sixth place in Actress.  Adapted from the novel by Louis Bromfield.
  • Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo  –  Based on the book about the Dolittle raids.  It wins two Nighthawks (Visual Effects and Sound Editing) and won the Oscar for Visual Effects.
  • The Spider Woman  –  The seventh film with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes, this is one of the better ones.  It does incorporate aspects from a variety of Holmes stories but is mostly original.
  • Can’t Help Singing  –  Deanna Durbin is back, and what’s worse, it’s also a Western.  Given that, this is not as bad as it could/should be.  Based on Girl of the Overland Trail by the Warshawsky brothers.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios  –  This film, on the other hand, has Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, so it should be better but it isn’t.  Based on the novel by Eric Ambler.
  • The Climax  –  Mediocre Universal film.  Technically based on a play by Edward Locke, but supposedly more designed as a pseudo-sequel to Phantom of the Opera.  The sets are good because they were recycled from Phantom.
  • The Bridge of San Luis Rey  –  A first-rate novel by Thornton Wilder that really shouldn’t be filmed because the novel is so philosophical.  The 1929 version is one of the few Oscar winners I’ve never seen (the only existing print is in Rochester).  The 2004 version is supposed to be just terrible.  This version is a forgettable mid-range *** film.
  • Since You Went Away  –  Adapted from the “novel” by Margaret Buell Wilder, which had been a column in a newspaper that appeared as letters to her husband, so I don’t know if novel is the right word.  A pompous David O. Selznick production that I have already reviewed because it was nominated for Best Picture (very undeservedly).
  • The Uninvited  –  Rather silly Ray Milland romance.  Adapted from the novel Uneasy Freehold by Dorothy Macardle (thank god they changed the title).
  • House of Frankenstein  –  A “lets throw all the monsters together” film that only classifies as adapted because of the pre-existing characters.  At this point, Universal has really run out of monster film ideas.
  • See Here, Private Hargrove  –  Comedy about a real army private (Marion Hargrove) who wrote a column about his experiences.  One of the first starring roles for Robert Walker.
  • The Lodger  –  Based on the same novel that Hitchcock based his film on, this film has nothing like the quality that Hitchcock’s does.
  • Christmas Holiday  –  Deanna Durbin doing noir, god help us.  From a Somerset Maugham novel, no less.  The very bottom of ***.
  • None But the Lonely Heart  –  Just remember that Cary Grant wasn’t Oscar nominated for The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Arsenic and Old Lace or North by Northwest, but was nominated for this maudlin mediocrity.  This film, from the Richard Llewellyn novel, is a **.5 film.  Grant isn’t bad (he’s my #6 in this weak year) and Agnes Barrymore is effective (she won the Oscar for Supporting Actress and is my #4)
  • The White Cliffs of Dover  –  Clarence Brown, the king of mediocre films, directs this film based on a poem.
  • The Invisible Man’s Revenge  –  The Invisible Man films are perhaps the weakest of the Universal monster sequels.  This one is no exception.  Has almost nothing to do with the original Wells novel.
  • Murder, My Sweet  –  Some people really like this adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely, but they are probably more tolerant of Dick Powell than I am.  I don’t buy him as Marlowe for even one second.
  • The Mummy’s Curse  –  Did I mention that Universal had run out of ideas?  The final Mummy film with Lon Chaney Jr., this only counts as adapted because of the characters originally created for the first Mummy film.
  • The Curse of the Cat People  –  Again, with characters created for a film.  This is the directorial debut for future double Oscar winner Robert Wise and it’s far inferior to the first film.
  • Maisie Goes to Reno  –  The eighth film in a series that wasn’t good to begin with.  I’ve seen it because the director, Harry Beaumont, was once nominated for an Oscar.  But that doesn’t mean you should see it.
  • The Canterville Ghost  –  Another film I’ve seen because the director was nominated for an Oscar, but while Beaumont’s had been long before, Jules Dassin’s is still way in the future here.  Based on the Oscar Wilde story.  This is one of the early Hollywood films that Dassin was later quite embarrassed by and he should be; it’s a ** film.
  • Dragon Seed  –  The worst adapted film of the year, but there are three original films that are worse.  This film is based on a novel by a Nobel Prize winner and stars two Oscar winners so it shouldn’t be this bad.  But it stars Katharine Hepburn and Walter Huston as Chinese and Pearl S. Buck didn’t remotely deserve to win the Nobel, so it is this bad.